10 compelling reasons to listen to the music of J S Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach's music is especially popular at Christmas. Is Bach the nearest thing we have to a god of music? Most musicians, scholars and music-lovers would say yes. Here are ten reasons to agree...
1. Being a Bach fan puts you in good company.
Throughout musical history, musicians and composers have revered Bach. From Debussy who called him "a benevolent god", to Brahms who advocated studying Bach "to find everything". From Mahler who said that "in Bach the vital cells of music are united as the world is in God", to Nina Simone: "Once I understood Bach's music, I wanted to be a concert pianist. Bach made me dedicate my life to music" – you can be safe in the knowledge that being a member of the JSB Fan Club means you're in pretty good company.
2. Bach offers a slow moment to relax and reflect.
For Dr. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, Bach offers the perfect antidote to the craziness Christmas can bring: “The kind of music that speaks most deeply to me often is music that has a very contemplative quality, and the music of Bach in particular has had a unique importance there. To put some of your ideas on hold, to listen to this, to go with it, that for me is a deep meditative moment.”
3. Bach has gone into space!
Forty years ago, NASA launched Voyager 1 and 2 into space carrying a "Golden Record".
This "mixtape for aliens", produced by astronomer Carl Sagan and Linda Salzman Sagan, features recordings of different languages, sounds of earth, and a selection of music, such as Chuck Berry, Beethoven and Indonesian Gamelan.
Three pieces of Bach were chosen alongside various others to represent the pinnacle of human history and culture to the universe - and this year, the two probes will soon both be in interstellar space. Not bad going for a man who never left Germany.
4. Bach might just help you burn off that Christmas pudding.
A study has shown that the average Briton consumes 6,000 calories on Christmas Day. Why not take inspiration from JSB and, instead of falling asleep on the sofa in front of the Strictly Special, pull on the winter warmers and get outside for a bit of long-distance pavement pounding. Bach walked 30 miles from Lüneburg to Hamburg to hear and meet the organist Johann Adam Reincken.
But that adventure pales in comparison to the journey he made to hear the famous organist Dietrich Buxtehude. From Arnstadt to Lübeck, that's an astonishing 260 miles! Even as a young man (Bach was only 20 at the time), it's a fantastic feat. If you're not feeling quite up to the journey yourself, Horatio Clare has taken the journey for Radio 3, following in Bach's footsteps in a series of five programmes.
5. He can help you get on in life.
Lots of us take the time to reflect at the year's end and make the decision… New Year, New Job! In 1721 Bach was looking for a new job and he collected together a set of six previously composed concerti grossi and dedicated them to Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg, as a sort of "job application". OK, so the Margrave never acknowledged the set (probably because he knew the works weren't new), and it didn't get Bach a new job... But how was the Margrave supposed to know that the musical CV he'd just received would come to be seen as the benchmark for Baroque music?
6. The wealth of music Bach composed will keep you going for years.
“I still can’t really get my ahead around the fact that one man wrote this much music of this quality. Often, the more I hear it the more I hear new things in it and the more amazed I am about it.” Trumpeter Alison Balsom picked Bach for two out of eight recordings on Desert Island Discs, and we can't help but share the sense of bewilderment that one human achieved so much. Listen to Alison Balsom's Bach choice: "Ruht wohl" from the St. John Passion.
7. He could feature on your Christmas party playlist…
There's plenty of dance music in Bach's output: the Orchestral Suites, for example, are really collections of dance pieces, and the "Jig" Fugue is one of his most popular organ works. And if it's jazz that gets you dancing, then you'll find plenty of jazz musicians inspired by JSB, from Django Reinhardt, Bill Evans, Fats Waller, Jacques Loussier, David Rees-Williams and even the Swingle Singers!
8. Bach can make something musically massive out of a tiny idea.
King Frederick II of Prussia gave Bach a short musical theme, challenging him to create a six-part fugue with it. Instead, Bach created a 16-movement set of pieces called "The Musical Offering".
9. Bach's music is emotionally direct and honest – just like the man himself.
Bach's relationships with his various employers could be fractious, and his family, too, could feel the force of his pen: none too pleased with a gift of a cask of wine from his second cousin Johann Ernst Bach, JSB didn't hold back from telling him what he thought: "Although my honoured Cousin kindly offers to oblige with more of the liqueur, I must decline his offer on account of the excessive expenses here. For since the carriage charges cost 16 groschen, the delivery man 2 groschen, the customs inspector 2 groschen, the inland duty 5 groschen 3 pfennig, and the general duty 3 groschen, my honoured Cousin can judge for himself that each quart costs me almost 5 groschen, which for a present is really too expensive."
10. Bach means Christmas and Bach means hope.
In the Soviet Union, religion was supressed. This war on the "opium of the people" included Christmas too, and Bach's Christmas Oratorio didn't escape the censure of the Soviet authorities. As conductor Vladimir Jurowski recounts, “This was considered religious propaganda... and so there were no recordings of the piece... For me, this piece is the symbol of the hope and symbol of the joy of human existence. It’s also the symbol of Christmas.” Listen to Vladimir Jurowski's Bach choice: the opening of Cantata III from Bach's Christmas Oratorio, first performed in Russia in 1988.